On this Sunday, traditionally called Good Shepherd Sunday, the Gospel for each Lectionary cycle is an excerpt from Jn. 10:1-30. Proclamation and prayer require reflection on the complex of motifs found throughout. This year the Gospel also provides a fine linkage with last week’s shepherding ministry of Peter, for whom Jesus is a model. Jesus twice calls himself the good shepherd, who knows the sheep and gives his life for them, in contrast with hirelings, who neglect the sheep. The discourse concludes with a solemn affirmation by Jesus that his sheep hear his voice, that he knows them and that his life given for their sake will bring them eternal life.
Life in its fullness (eternal life) is one of the major themes of John and is to be celebrated during this paschal season. Life is the prime characteristic of Jesus (1:4), and he comes to bring people eternal life (3:15-16). Such life does not begin after death, for the one who believes already has eternal life (3:36; 4:14) and has already passed from death into life (5:24). Eternal life cannot be taken away by death but only by sin and unbelief, and Jesus is himself resurrection and life.
While most contemporary Christians have a strong hope in life beyond death, few would realize that they already possess “eternal life.” In John eternal life describes less duration or unending life than a quality or fullness of life. It is life with and for God that Jesus reveals and that begins when people through faith and love commit themselves to the kind and quality of life that Jesus embodies.
Still, not even the Johannine affirmation of the presence of eternal life amid everyday existence takes away fear of suffering and death. Shortly before his untimely death (Aug. 8, 1998), Raymond E. Brown, S.S., wrote: “The finality of death and the uncertainties it creates causes trembling also among those who have spent their lives professing Christ...[but] when confronted with the reality of the grave, all need to hear and proclaim the bold message that Jesus proclaims...‘everyone who believes in me shall never die at all’” (A Retreat With John the Evangelist: That You May Have Life).
Today, as the culture of death seems to envelop our lives from the killing fields of political, ethnic and religious wars, through plagues and pandemics, and even takes up residence in schoolyards, the promise of present and future eternal life seems fragile. Yet the Good Shepherd promises his flock and those other sheep not of his fold that no human life is meaningless or forgotten by God. Love, joy and life await even those whose lives, barely unfolding, were snatched away, when “God will wipe every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:17).